The Photograph as Writing Prompt or What to do about Marcel Proust

Wilber Merton Deming, local photographer, and four Winsted businessmen circa 1893

… the title “In Search of Lost Time” gets to the heart of what the book’s about, because this very long novel by this very strange Frenchman is mostly a consideration of how time, as it were, slips through our fingers, how we are alive but most of the time not properly attuned to the world around us. In other words, we’re constantly wasting our time. — Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, interviewed on NPR (Time, Memory and Proust) December 2005.

 


It begins simply enough with two photographs—one of my grandfather, Nicholas Vreeland in army uniform, taken upon his arrival in France in 1918. He didn’t see any action, having arrived just in time for the armistice. Get off the boat, have your portrait taken, get on the boat and come back home. But this is not about him. It’s about two photographs and what to do with them. You see, we’re culling; we’re going through 43 Tupperware tubs of materials that have been neglected in a U-Haul storeroom for the past several years. We pay rent for that space, and now it comes to mind, how much more than money we pay for the objects of our neglect.

Alanna sorts clothing, utensils, small appliances that will go to the thrift stores, and stuff that will be given another life and put to use again. Stuff. That word, a vague catch-all. I’m tempted to apologize for it, but think it to be the most appropriate. Then there’s the other pile, other stuff that will be re-stored and reinstated as objects of neglect for another five to ten year sentence. Maybe less, it’s not going back to the U-Haul rental space; it may sit protected in a not-so-temporary-yet-not-so-permanent hiding place like behind a sofa. Out of sight may be out of mind, but five years is a stretch for exercising neglect in a living space.

The thought of a closet may have crossed your mind. Poor farmers built this house which, more than a century ago had but four rooms. A generation ago, an addition was tacked on. Now it’s a cottage with two closets. Both are stuffed.(That’s what you do with stuff, the noun. You can use stuff to satisfy stuff, the verb.)  There’s a spare bedroom that’s stuffed as well. It’s a store room except when we have an overnight visitor. Then it’s a guest room for one willing to sleep amid filing cabinets, chests of drawers, and other dubious furniture with overpopulated and overcrowded surfaces.

Alanna sorts through the tubs and hands me the two photographs with a gesture that says, “Do something with these.” I remove the portrait of my grandfather from its frame and scan it. The frame goes in the trash. Perhaps I should give the photograph to the Winsted Historical Society in the town where I grew up, and where Nick lived most of his life. The society might be interested but I have reservations. It seems to be more devoted to displays of Revolutionary War memorabilia. There is also the Connecticut Historical Society. Historical societies and public archives are great places to which decision-making dilemmas—such as what-to-do-with Old—Nick  can be passed. And I can hide the digital image on a hard drive, out of sight, out of mind. Until … I don’t want to go there.

It’s the second image that takes me down the rabbit-hole. In it, five men are seated around a table. I don’t know if they have been arranged with their heights taken into consideration. I don’t know if they have been posed. “Al, would you tilt your head a bit to the left? George, cigar in the right side of your mouth. Yes, that’s it.” Five men. The one on the left, Wilber Deming, sets himself apart, not by distance, but by appearance. He’s wearing a worker’s cap while the other four are sporting bowlers, or derbies as they were called in Winsted. Deming holds a long-stemmed pipe while the others have cigars clamped in their jaws.

A unique feature of this photograph is that the photographer is in the image. Wilber Merton Deming (1851-1916) was a well-know local photographer. Some of his images are in private collections, and some have been catalogued by the Connecticut Historical Society.  On this day, Deming positioned himself, and someone else pressed the cable release activating the shutter on his camera. I know this because of the penciled notes on its back. Howard Merton Deming, Wilber’s son, wrote in August 1943:

Picture probably taken before 1893, perhaps by Will Ackley, brother-in-law to Deming. Photo gallery was on the third floor of wooden block opposite residence of E.P. Jones. Picture found among effects of Edward R. Holmes, died 1943.

I’m taken as much by the notes as I am by the image, and my interest in the complementarity of photography and texts is rekindled. (My earlier blogged essays on this subject include, “Work that Matters and the Interdependence of Photography and Texts”, “Photographs and Texts — Functional Codependency”, Photo Stories — a Follow Up to Functional Codependency” about The Old World and Other Stories [House of Anansi Press] in which Cary Fagan takes photographs as writing prompts for short stories, “Fine Art, Photography and Texts: Bieke Depoorter.” Those essays are no longer available on line.) I’m particularly taken by Howard’s description of Charlie Chase. He notes:

Son of D.B. Chase, Plumber. Brother to Nettie Chase, home florist Prospect St. Chase shop was where Colt’s Block is now. After D.B. died, Charlie was with Wills Norton as Chase & Norton. Charlie ran Steamer Carrie for some time in its later years.

Steamer Carrie? That takes me deeper down the rabbit hole. The fruit of time spent in subsequent research informs me that the “Carrie” was a passenger boat on Highland Lake, a pleasure resort in the days when the town was prosperous and had a future, long before the summers I spent swimming and fishing there..

Take a look at Charlie. I see an attitude there, perhaps a braggadocio that wants to conceal the risks he takes as an entrepreneur. See how he’s the only one with his arms folded over his chest somewhat defensively. I see a guarded man with a lot of energy—a gamesman, a scrapper.

Howard tacks two words to end his notes about Charlie—“Shot himself.” Oh? There are branches deeper down the rabbit hole. Howard may have had it wrong. Continue reading

Can you identify the mystery poet?

Mystery_Poet
Here’s another poem from “Sad Songs from Hush River” available at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/471447 offered in recognition of National Poetry Month. I wrote “On the Morn of Your Eulogy” as an exercise using another poem as a prompt.  My poem follows the structure of the original, including that of the title which is something like “On the Eve of Your Departure.”  Alas, I cannot relocate the inspiration and I am unable to credit the writer. Can you help? Do you know who the author and the poem might have been?  Suggestions appreciated.

Tell me you weren’t cracking up,

You had but the one suckling child

and you still held an artist’s brush with confidence

even hope.

 

I promised you by your tired eyes that you were a well-tempered palette.

You promised me by your tired eyes that you were a well-tempered palette.

And all the planets promised both of us by your tired eyes that you still

perceived the colors of truth completely

 

Who could not go on living?

 

My pen will be glad to have been a record,

The brush to have been your lover,

I to have been blessed to touch the hem of your dress

in the quiet of evening.

 

The scout has lost his compass,

The sailor his anchor,

And I — I feel my mind eroding–ragged holes exposing a stormy sky,

That my time too is ticking down

That your daughter is more than a daughter, and the sun is more than a sun.

 

What is the word for tomorrow?